Engineering Change

“I have a commitment to make Manchester City my priority. I have a verbal agreement with them and I hope it is carried out”

 And so, one of the worst kept secrets in football, is finally confirmed. Manuel Pellegrini will be the new coach of Manchester City after agreeing a 3 year deal at the club. Actually, there’s little point discussing anything else, is there? Following the endless speculation, the conjecture and the fall out from Mancini’s dismissal, Pellegrini has eventually been confirmed as the Italian’s successor. Given the prolonged nature of this appointment, everything that needs to be said already has been said. Pellegrini failed at Real Madrid after spending over £200m, didn’t he? He’s only ever won one trophy in Europe and that was the Intertoto cup back in 2004. What “success” he enjoyed at Malaga and Villarreal was built upon the back of considerable spending. And look at the financial mess both clubs are in now. Sadly, we cannot all write for the mainstream tabloids. Some of us actually watch European football and delve a little deeper than the mere production of superficial nonsense designed to illicit a response and sell copy.

Leaving aside the appointment of Pellegrini for a moment, the critics will argue about the supposed long term plan at City. Is this really evidence of a plan? The lavish spending (thus far) of over £40million on two players? This isn’t the future that UEFA had in mind when designing Financial Fair Play. It’s just more of the same from Manchester City and nothing new. This isn’t a brave new world it’s just window dressing to cover the lack of progress the club is making. Very expensive window dressing.

Expensive Indulgence

A side in the north of England attempting to mimic a club on the coast of Spain ? This is an ego trip fuelled by the extravagance of owners whose wealth knows no bounds. This is vanity, which is how a number in the media may interpret it, poised to print the pre-written obituary of Pellegrini and others when the bricks come tumbling down. And the bricks may well come tumbling down but that should not disguise the clear strategy that Man City has and which they are following.

The comparisons with Spain (and ultimately Barcelona) are inevitable when City have appointed men like Ferran Soriano Compte and Aitor ‘Txiki’ Begiristain Mujik, both of whom are previous employees of the Catalan side. Begiristain was the man responsible for the appointment of Josep Guardiola as the new Coach of Barcelona back in 2008 when others on the Board felt Mourinho was a better fit for the side.

In attempting to construct a new philosophy at the club, it’s unavoidable to an extent that you will turn to men who had helped you in the past and who share your vision. That’s why City was interested, along with other elite sides, of appointing Guardiola as their new Coach. When it was confirmed that Guardiola would move elsewhere, City needed an alternative. Somebody who would fit with their vision for the club over the longer term and who would mould the side on the pitch accordingly. It was no surprise that Begiristain returned to La Liga nor was it that surprising that Pellegrini was his chosen candidate.

The club now aim to install a possession based, attacking game across the board. Each level of the club will follow the same model. The ultimate goal is to be both successful and to complement the first team with players developed by the club. Manual Pellegrini has been tasked with the early stages of construction. He is highly unlikely to be around once construction is complete but the stage from initial project inception to laying the foundations correctly can often be the most difficult aspect.

The Engineer

A graduate of the University of Santiago in Civil Engineering, the Chilean began his coaching career in his homeland in 1988 with spells in Ecuador and Argentina following before Villarreal came calling in 2004. Pellegrini won his first and only piece of silverware in European football during his debut season with the successful defence of the Intertoto Cup. The yellow submarine also finished 3rd in the league and progressed to the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup.

Manuel Pellegrini

Manuel Pellegrini

The following season would witness Villarreal reaching the semi final of the Champions League. Riquelme’s missed penalty late in the second leg enabled Arsenal to progress to the final via a 1-0 aggregate win. This remains the furthest stage a team debuting in the competition has reached.

Domestically, the high point for the Chilean arrived in 2007/08 when Villarreal finished second to Real Madrid in La Liga. Villarreal remain the last side to split the big two in Spain , an accomplishment which should not be degraded. In a country where finishing third will earn you less TV income than a side being relegated from the Premiership, the financial disparity between the big two and the remainder should not be underestimated. The gap was bridged and that too by the production of stylish football.

Yet this relative “success” was built upon the back of President Roig’s generosity. When things went bad, Pellegrini who had overseen the good timeshad long since abandoned ship. Right?

Roig’s business began encountering financial problems at the onset of the recession, with the housing crash in Spain causing particular problems. This forced Villarreal to begin following a new financial model. Pellegrini had long since gone by the time of their relegation. As for the spending, Pellegrini’s net spend at Villarreal was just £11million.

At Malaga , he arrived to oversee a new project being built upon Middle Eastern riches. Except the money tap was quickly switched off and Malaga endured a series of financial problems which required the offloading of numerous players whilst others waited for wages. The Engineer repaired the team to ensure progression to the quarter finals of the Champions League (the second furthest stage a team debuting in the competition has reached) and a 6th placed league finish. Pellegrini’s net spend at Malaga was just £16million. When the left back Monreal was sold to Arsenal in the winter transfer window and with the alternative left back Eliseu injured, the club acquired Antunes on loan from Pacos in Portugal . A new component for the team who fitted in seamlessly. It’s not about the money he has to spend. It’s about the qualities of the players both on and off the pitch.

“We wanted players with sufficient maturity, with human qualities as well as footballing ones that can help”

 

Pellegrini Tactically

“To be attacking, to try to tale control of the game, to take responsibility, to be attractive. There are small differences of course, depending on what players you have, but there is a footballing concept and a concept of spectacle that is non-negotiable”

Pellegrini has used a variety of tactical set ups during his time at Villarreal, Madrid and Malaga, ranging from 4-3-1-2 to 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1. But it has been with his 4-4-2 at both Villarreal and Malaga that his sides have often produced the best football. That may sound unusual given how we are constantly told the 4-4-2 is an entirely reactive formation, not to say an almost redundant formation at the top level, yet Pellegrini has it operating in the latter stages of the Champions League. How?

At Villarreal he moved from a 4-3-1-2 capable of utilising the skills of a classic South American style playmaker such as Riquelme and latterly Matias Fernandez to a 4-4-2 using interiores. His final season at Villarreal primarily used the 4-4-2 as shown below:-

 
 

Villarreal 4-4-2 Formation Villarreal 4-4-2 Formation

Pellegrini has always used a flat back four. The defensive unit is always well marshalled by a dominant centre half. When an opponent attacks, the defensive line, which is normally high, will drop off to the edge of the penalty area before holding firm. The offside trap is used to good effect. At Villarreal the central defensive pairing of Godin and Gonzalo were physically robust and the full backs of Javi Venta and Capdevila able to move up and down the wings.

The two defensive midfield players stay deep to offer protection and to pull wide should the opposition attack behind either full back.  This provides security but is not entirely defensive. The players must also be able to build and construct play. At Villarreal, Marcos Senna was tasked with this role.

The two wide midfield players cut in centrally to form a block of four in the centre of the pitch with the full backs advancing to provide the width. They move into the interior, hence the name “interiores”. Crucially, the two wide players must return to position for defensive duties. The two forward players meanwhile are capable of pulling wide, creating space centrally which can be attacked. Pellegrini was able to use the mobility of either Giuseppe Rossi or Nihat alongside the presence of a more powerful, physical striker such as Joseba Llorente.

The key point throughout is the availability of passing triangles. From the graphic above, when players move, you can clearly see how passing channels are open via movement. A player always has passing options available to him and the side swamp the opponent in central midfield. In such a tightly congested area, the side with the greater technical proficiency will domainate as they find team mates with short, sharp passes. This will be a Pellegrini side. The positions are not fixed either. The right interiore will move across if play is stationed wide on the left (and vice versa). The team is compact and the opponent is squeezed.

A similar philosophy developed at Malaga although the formation began to shift. In defence, the commanding presence of  Demichellis took control alongside Weligton. Both full backs were comfortable moving up the pitch but this is where the dynamic began to alter. The defensive unit was sound but in the attacking third there was a great deal of fluidity offered:-

Malaga 4-4-2 Formation Malaga 4-4-2 Formation

Eliseu on the left of midfield is a converted left back and operated more like a wing back, shuttling up and down. On the right, Isco would drive in centrally allowing the full back to overlap. Together, they would combine with Joaquin who was the striker but was beginning in a deeper position.

Pellegrini is not a coach who will instruct his side to press high and chase and harass an opponent. The Villarreal side had a South American feel to it with the tempo which they played the game and the individual components of the side. The side don’t rush to attack. It is structured, cautious, with the team moving as a coherent unit. His sides can defend resolutely as the performances in Europe of both Villarreal and Malaga demonstrated when a reactive approach was favoured allowing opponents to take the initiative.

If that’s how he operated previously, how he will operate at City remains to be seen, particularly when it appears he has been charged with implementing a 4-3-3.

With his ability to utilise the creative talents of a playmaker, David Silva could find himself in a central role in the season ahead. Silva is not the quickest player in physical terms but that will not dissuade Pellegrini from constructing the side around his creative talents if necessary.

Using full backs for width is something which City have done to date. It’s also something that has become something of an Achilles heel for them with teams exploiting the space on transitions particularly given Barry’s immobility and reluctance to be pulled wide to cover.  This is an area which must be tackled. Using two defensive midfield players will assist this but possibly not Yaya Toure. Indeed, how the Ivorian fits into the system will be a crucial element. Does he have the discipline to operate in a purely defensive fashion? Does that suit his talent best?

The defence should be straightforward with Kompany the ideal individual to use as the central starting block. Alongside him may be Nastasic with Zabaleta and Clichy as full backs. In midfield, the three could be Fernandinho, Toure and Silva. City continue to be linked with Isco from Malaga and it’s not inconceivable to field an attacking trio of Isco, Silva and Navas behind Aguero as the central striker.

Such a set up would provide an asymetrical formation with width on the right against narrow approach on the left and it would also need to combat the lack of defensive cover that Navas offers. Whatever formation is utilised, expect City to be more resolute defensively and more fluid in the attacking third. There will be a clear template to use when defending and flexibility when attacking.

Questions will remain over the long term futures of the likes of Milner, Barry, Sinclair, Rodwell, Tevez and Dzeko. An already small English core may be depleted further. Actually, it is a real possiblity that the only Englishman that City will field on a regular basis next season will be Joe Hart in goal. Such a scenario is not City’ s problem in the short term at least, but it again raises questions over the technical and tactical profiency of English players.

The More Things Change

“No one ever asked me anything about how to create a team capable of playing the kind of football I wanted to play”

The manner in which Mancini departed to be replaced by Pellegrini would be very familiar to the Chilean. A little too familiar perhaps. Similar circumstances prevailed back in 2010 when Pellegrini departed Real Madrid after just one season to be replaced by Jose Mourinho.

Pellegrini spent one season at Madrid when he spent a small fortune and achieved the princely sum of zero. Or so the story goes. Scratch a little deeper than your average tabloid journalist and you’ll find the real story.

When Pellegrini arrived at Madrid , over £200m was already spent and in some respects he was already living on borrowed time. He had no say in the players that were acquired by the club. What he did have a say in was the players he would like to retain and build his side around. Players such as Arjen Robben and Welsey Sneijder. Two players who were subsequently sold within days of Pellegrini arriving against his will.

It was clear for Pelleginri where the problems lay:-

“I can’t get anything out of an orchestra if I have the 10 best guitarists but I don’t have a pianist or a drummer”

The squad was unbalanced for the tasks ahead yet his viewpoint was ignored.

And for those who would argue if he had won trophies, he would not have been dismissed, consider exhibit A; Vicente del Bosque. Sacked after delivering two La Liga titles and two Champions Leagues in just three seasons. Pellegrini was the choice of the former Sporting Director, Jorge Valdano, a man who has clear identity when it comes to football. According to Valdano, Pellegrini was a “protagonist; he seeks to dominate possession and always attack”. Perez simply wanted a manager who would win and Pellegrini was not a “winner” but nor was Perez either. He had overseen the collection of zero trophies during his reign as President. Pellegrini was not Perez choice and favoured some players acquired by the previous President. It really was that petty at times.

Madrid spent £258 million prior to Pellegrini arriving with President Perez noting “We have to do in one year what we would normally do in three“, an idea that is at odds with the philosophy of the then incumbent in the managerial hot seat. Despite noting that he had begun laying the foundation for success which included dealing with the heavyweights in the dressing room in the shape of Guti and Raul, the Chilean was axed.

Pellegrini may only have managed Real Madrid for 48 games but he had a win percentage of 75%, which is 3% higher than a certain Chelsea manager.

“I’d like to congratulate Real Madrid , fantastic opponents and without whom we would never have reached 99 points. Pellegrini and his players have dignified our professions”

The words of Guardiola after his Barcelona side claimed the La Liga title on the final day of the season over their arch rivals.  Sentiments which were not shared by those inside the Madrid boardroom.

The Engineer Who Constructs

“To be able to build up a club, this is as important as going to an institution where you will be able to win things”

When you hear Pellegrini speak, the same themes appear consistently. The need to build, to construct a long term solution and to play aesthetically, but ultimately successful, football in the process. This is not necessarily all out attacking football. It’s considered, it’s patient but it is football with a clear personality.

Upon taking control of Malaga , he noted:-

 “I’m not interested in external ego but internal satisfaction. I’m not interested just in easy glory but in constructing something….together we are trying to build a project that is not just short term”

And that really encapsulates his overarching footballing philosophy. Why buy to acquire success if it’s short lived or unsustainable? The creation of a lengthy period of dominance fuelled by both acquisitions and the promotion of youth players from within the club must be the ideal goal. This is what the neighbours from across the city achieved under Ferguson . Players from within being promoted to the first team and supplementing quality acquisitions and it led, after a slow start, to a period of dominance which is arguably unparalleled in the English game.

Pellegrini seeks to bring footballers with human qualities to his sides and he too displays the very same qualities he desires in others. Urbane, likeable and fairly laidback, he won’t make great copy for journalists at press conferences as he acts with a professionalism and dignity that doesn’t make headlines. The manner in which he handled the constant sniping and undermining at Real Madrid is testimony to his character, as is the manner in which he has refused to be drawn in ever since whenever his Malaga side has faced los blancos.

And now, as he heads for Manchester , Pellegrini retains the same desire to continue building, acknowledging the need for a solution both on and off the pitch. The manner in which some sections of the media questioned City for claiming the need for a “holistic” solution when terminating Mancini’s contract will start to look more questionable by the day. The club have a manager who shares the ideals being espoused at boardroom level.

Upon his appointment, he noted:-

“The club has a clear vision for success both on and off the pitch and I am committed to making a significant contribution.”

Departures All Round?

It’s been plain to see where the problems lie in the Manchester City side over the past few seasons. Mancini favoured a very central approach with both wide attacking players operating as inverted wingers. This relied upon the full backs to provide width. The acquisition of Jesus Navas from Sevilla represents a departure from this viewpoint and provides a much needed tactical variation in the side’s attacking play.

And just as there have been critics of Pellegrini, there are those who are rushing to criticise Navas. Let’s be clear, the player does have his flaws. He didn’t score a single goal for Sevilla last season and his shooting has always been very poor. But that’s not why you acquire someone like Navas. You acquire him for his blistering pace and very direct nature. His repeated desire to attack the opposition full back on the outside is why you buy him. To stretch opponents defences. His presence on the touchline forces the full back out and creates gaps in a back four. The sort of gaps that a player such as David Silva can exploit.

Jesus Navas

Jesus Navas

Yet, just as Navas marks a departure for Man City and the players they have acquired, it also represents a change for Pellegrini who has rarely used wingers until he arrived at Malaga and found Joaquin. Once the golden boy of Spanish football, its fair comment to state that Joaquin never reached the heights he should have. Yet under Pellegrini in Andalusia , the winger has been reinvented as a central striker who can pull wide. And Joaquin now plays with the same smile and level of infectiousness last seen during his early days at Real Betis.

Joaquin began to operate as the second striker, cutting in from the right with a slightly deeper starting position (as shown on the diagram above) and able to drive at opponents. Freed from the shackles of defensive responsibility that comes with being a right winger, Joaquin prospered. Yet he cites Pellegrini for his both his tactical and non tactical work:-
“Everyone knows Pellegrini’s philosophy and his history but he’s a guy who gives you so much confidence, who acts with so much humility that, somehow, he always gets the best out of every player: he is the central piece in this jigsaw”

How Pellegrini uses a player such as Navas will be pivotal if City is to confront their problems from last season and present opponents with new questions.

Season 2013/14 Engineering City

Of course, none of this means Pellegrini will storm the Premiership and help City regain the title from Man Utd. His appointment simply means that the hierarchy have employed an individual who shares their visions and ideals. Progress may not be immediately obvious nor will it be solely assessed by results. Clearly, a disastrous season would have repercussions, but a trophyless season may not. Projects as ambitious as this take time.

The club have begun with the acquisitions of Navas and the Brazilian midfielder, Fernandinho. Although Begiristain will be overseeing transfer dealings, Pellegrini will have an input there too as the club build a squad capable of playing the 4-3-3 formation that they have chosen as their default.

The plans have been drawn up and the various appointments have been made. It’s time for the Engineer to start building.

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Week 23 Observations

Some thoughts on three key games played this weekend in La Liga:-

Levante 1 Malaga 2

Despite both being considered as prime candidates to secure European berths, Europa League and Champions League respectively, both sides recent form was more akin to that of relegation candidates.

Levante began this weekend in ninth place with Malaga in fourth but both sides have lost momentum recently. Levante have lost five of their last seven games whilst Malaga have just one league win in 2013. Indeed, Malaga’s form becomes even more sketchy when you consider they have collected just six wins in their last 21 leagues games. Their Champions League form vastly overshadowing performances on the domestic front.

Yet, as with recent seasons, the fight for European spots is increasingly turbulent with positions changing frequently.

With the financial problems at Malaga and the loss of another key performer in Monreal, the sight of Baptista making his first start in 16 months offered encouragement. In attack, Malaga have no concerns over options. It’s defensively where there are frailties. Sergio Sanchez was forced to start in central defence with Lugano not fit and Weligton not in the squad. Antunes was used at left back. Yet this makeshift defence coped and helped Malaga to a valuable win.

The standout performer was, yet again, Francisco Alcoron a.k.a Isco with his two goals being enough for the visitors to take the three points home.

Isco Shots vs Levante

Isco Shots vs Levante                                        http://www.squawka.com

The graphic above shows Isco’s shots at goal. All are taken centrally and all are around the edge of the penalty area. Despite making passes across the entire width of the pitch, Isco’s awareness to pick out a team mate in better positions prevents him taking speculative shots from around the box.

Athletic 0 Espanyol 4

A recent improvement in performances coupled with two positive results led some to believe that reports of Athletics decline under Bielsa had been greatly exaggerated.

The 3-0 home win over Atletico were the Basques produced their best display of the season was followed by a strong comeback away to Valladolid to recover from two goals down and claim a draw. Unfortunately, the Basques resorted to type this season with a capitulation at home to los pericos.

Athletic dominated possession as per usual with a staggering 70% but were repeatedly cut open by Espanyol on the break during a dreadful second half performance. A failure by Athletic to create clear openings and poor finishing left them goalless.

The visitors recorded just five shots on target but scored with four of them. Verdu’s penalty save by Iraizoz being the one shot on target which they did not score with although the midfielder slotted home the rebound.

Espanyol Shots vs Athletic

Espanyol Shots vs Athletic                             http://www.squawka.com

The graphic above shows the shots on target. All were central and extremely close to the goal. When Espanyol counter attacked, it was too easy for them to create an opening against a stretched Athletic defence.

Javier Aguirre’s record at Espanyol since taking over from Pochettino is  very impressive five wins, four draws and one defeat from his ten games in charge, lifting Espanyol from bottom position and leapfrogging their hosts into 13th place.

Rayo Vallecano 2 Atletico 1

There is something wonderfully refreshing about Rayo Vallecano. Their small, ramshackle ground with three stands and neighbouring tower blocks overlooking the pitch. The fact their fans are some of the most fervent in the division but probably because they deliver a brand of high energy football with a mixture of journeyman players and youngsters full of potential on the smallest budget in the league.

Rayo now have six wins in their last eight games and only a 94th minute strike from Falcao stopped them from securing their sixth clean sheet of the league season. It’s a fantastic achievement and one which has taken them to the brink of a European place but fans will recall last season when a dreadful run of form saw them far too close to relegation on the final day. That should not be replicated.

The graphic below shows Baptistao’s passes against Atleti. With repeated rumours that he will join Atleti in the summer, what better way to showcase his talents? His movement around the pitch created problems for Atleti and enable Rayo to overload Atleti in midfield.

Baptistao Passes vs Atleti

Baptistao Passes vs Atleti                          http://www.squawka.com

Despite trailing 2-0  following goals from Lass and Baptistao, Atleti did not change their outlook during the first half. Their conservative position remained the same and only began to alter after half time. Is Simeone adopting too conservative an approach in away games? Does el Cholo fail to react to falling behind?

Atleti’s fifth away defeat of the campaign and their lead over neighbours Madrid has been cut to just four points. What must be concerning Simeone is that Atleti have not won on the road since an away win over Granada on the 18th November 2012. Since that win they have played five away games and only collected a solitary point away at Mallorca. Their second place in the table has been built upon their tremendous home form at the Calderon.

Malaga vs Barcelona – Tactical Analysis

Malaga and Barcelona clashed at La Rosaleda last night in the first of three games in ten days for the clubs with the sides meeting in the forthcoming Copa del Rey tie.

The first blow in this triple header went to Barcelona. Given the display that Barcelona produced, few would now bet against a clean sweep of three successive victories against the Andalusian’s.

Line Ups

There were two changes to the Malaga side following their 1-0 loss away to Deportivo. Jesus Gamez was replaced by Sergio Sanchez at right back and the defensive midfielder Jeremy Toulalan came in for the more offensive Portillo in midfield.

Malaga Starting Line Up

Malaga Starting Line Up

Pellegrini chose to use a double pivot in midfield to try and compete against Barcelona.

There was just one change to the Barcelona side that had dispatched Espanyol so convincingly last week with Mascherano replacing Puyol in central defence.

Barcelona Starting Line Up

Barcelona Starting Line Up

Iniesta continued in the attacking left hand position with Cesc accommodated in midfield.

The Malaga Approach

“We need to start the game convinced Barça can lose. We will have to play a great game. If we still lose, fine.”

Pellegrini

The Chilean was quite clear pre-match what he expected from his side and they tackled the challenge with the style we have come to expect from a Pellegrini side with a twist. With Roque Santa Cruz as the central striker, Malaga had a physical reference point in attack who could be used to hold the ball up and win aerial battles.

It worked to a degree. Santa Cruz won a number of headers and was able to retain a presence in attack but his skills were diminished when he moved wide lacking the pace and mobility of a Saviola.

 
Roque Santa Cruz Headers

Roque Santa Cruz Headers        http://www.squawka.com

Furthermore, he never managed a header in the opposition box. He was operating deep and looking to find Joaquin and Isco from flick-ons. Isco had one of his quietest games of the season whilst Joaquin offered a number of surging runs but lacked quality in the final third.

The remainder of the Malaga team had a familiar look to it. Although employing a double pivot of Toulalan and Camacho, the home side still maintained their customary short passing game.

During the defensive phase, the side dropped back to a 4-4-1-1 with Santa Cruz left upfield and supported by Isco. Joaquin was always prepared to join them. The remaining seven players performed the defensive function. By leaving players in attack, Malaga prevented Barcelona from becoming encamped in their half of the pitch, always weary to the threat posed by los bocquernos.

The effort required to sustain a challenge against Barcelona inevitably took it’s toll and tiredness set in enabling Barcelona to dominate much of the second half.

 

The Midfield Battle

The game opened with both sides seeking to impose their style on the opposition. Both teams were pressing the opposition goalkeeper when in position forcing long kick outs. With the quality on both sides, winning the midfield battle would be key. Early on Malaga competed well and forced Barcelona back. It is unusual to see a Barcelona side defend with the entire team back but that occurred during the first half.

The diagram below shows the average positions for the players with Malaga in blue and Barcelona in red:-

Malaga vs Barcelona - Average Player Positions

Malaga vs Barcelona – Average Player Positions         http://www.whoscored.com

The Malaga players are clustered vertically whilst the Barcelona midfield and full backs are positioned horizontally. With Messi drifting laterally in front it creates ideal passing triangles.

The position of Dani Alves is extremely high, almost level with Pedro. Iniesta and Cesc are side by side, ready to swap places as the situation develops.

Sanchez was often isolated at right back with Joaquin further forward and cutting inward. Such a move simply aided Barcelona’s left.

Left, Left, Left

Against Espanyol, the interplay and positional changing of Iniesta and Cesc was a key component of the victory. These players linked yet again against Malaga to provide Barcelona with an alternative to the reliance upon the right side of the team where Pedro, Messi, primarily, and Alves operate.

Barcelona Heat Map vs Malaga

Barcelona Heat Map vs Malaga                  http://www.squawka.com

The above heat map shows the tendency for attacks entering the penalty area to be on the left hand side. It’s a theme that has been developing recently and only looks like increasing further through the combination play of Iniesta, Cesc and Alba.

The lack of penetration on the right is heightened by the tendency for Pedro to drive diagonally inward and act as a No9 when required. It leaves Dani Alves alone to patrol the right flank.

Iniesta has previously spoken of not fully enjoying the wide left role but there is now a major difference with the interchanging:-

“Playing at different position? Main thing is you feel good. We try to switch positions, the team does well, that’s what matters.”

Iniesta

The Goals

With the game finely balanced although Barcelona were enjoying more possession, the opening goal would be pivotal. That it arose via a defensive blunder considering the quality on offer was a surprise. Camacho hit a back pass to Cabellero failing to see that Messi was some way behind the Malaga defence. The forward was able to intercept the pass and round Cabellero before slotting home.

Fabregas scored shortly after half time. As with all Pellegrini teams, Malaga hold a well organised defensive line and attempt to stay relatively high rather than falling back. This time however, Weligton dropped deeper than his team mates and Fabregas was able to run in behind Sanchez for the second goal. The real moment of genius here though was the chipped pass from Messi, weighted perfectly for Fabregas to run onto.

The goal was further evidence of the positional changes which Barcelona can now utilise. Iniesta was supposedly on the wide attacking left position, but at the goal he was in a central position and Cesc Fabregas was wide on the left. The constant movement and interplay making it increasingly difficult for opponents to successfully defend. This level of understanding comes to fruition after a considerable time period. It’s not easily learned.

The second goal killed the game to a certain extent. Barcelona dominated possession and Malaga only offered minimal threat sporadically, both teams sensing that the contest was over. It led to a situation of less pressure for Barcelona and some fantastic midfield passing movements helped by their horizontal positioning noted above.

Barcelona now also possess the ability to attack teams quickly during transitions. The qualities have always existed but are now being employed. In the 63 minute, Barcelona attacked swiftly following a Malaga corner with Pique leading the break.  This has been an underused weapon within the arsenal for some time but there are signs it is being used more frequently now.
 
The third and final goal for Barcelona was an individual effort from Thiago. Collecting a throw in on the right, he easily evaded poorly attempted tackles from Iturra and Camacho before drilling the ball low past Cabellero.

Barcelona has now gone nine games home and away without defeat against Malaga with Messi scoring ten goals in his last ten games against los bocquernos.

Buonanotte scored a consolation goal, a lovely free kick curled over the defensive wall. It was a deserved goal considering their efforts.

Conclusions

Malaga suffer back to back league defeats and, more importantly, become caught up in a battle to secure the final Champions League berth. Whilst the loss was disappointing, Dimechelis was quick to recognise the superiority of Barcelona:-

“Honestly, in the second half Barcelona made me want to applaud them.”

An unprecedented league campaign for Barcelona thus far. Eighteen wins and a solitary draw in their nineteen matches to date. Vilanova has already acknowledged that a repeat of such form in the second half of the season is unlikely but given their recent form, could Barcelona at least remain unbeaten for the duration of the season?

Week 18 Observations

A few observations from the key games played this weekend in La Liga:-

Deportivo 1 Malaga 0

A defeat for Malaga in a game they dominated in terms of possession yet still relied heavily upon goalkeeper Willy Cabellero to help them out with some key saves. Cabellero again demonstrating why he leads the race for the Zamora.

Malaga now face Barcelona at home before eminently winnable games against Celta, Mallorca and Real Zaragoza.

The noteworthy element of this game, however, arrived via Deportivo with new coach Domingos Paciencia securing a much needed three points in his first match in charge of the Galicians. Having spent the bulk of his career in Portugal, his first managerial appointment in Spain has the bonus of being in charge of a squad with a considerable Portuguese contingent.

Paciencia utilised the same system as his predecessor Oltra with a 4-2-3-1 with one key difference. Juan Carlos Valeron was on the substitutes bench. Was this a tactical ploy or a technical reason?

At the age of 37, Valeron is very much in the twilight of his career. The mind and the skills are still as sharp as ever even if his legs began failing him a long time ago. Within a squad marked by limited quality, Valeron is still a standout. The statistics verify this. Valeron has the highest number of assists this season with four whilst he averages 2.1 key passes per game. In terms of the number of passes, he is second only to Aguillar.

Perhaps it’s what Valeron does not provide you with that Paciencia, a coach who believes in defensive solidity and hard work as a base, values. Valeron has made just one tackle and committed just one foul this season. Not attributes for a team fighting relegation. And then there’s Valeron’s weary limbs again.

True, Valeron has completed 90 minutes on just two occasions this season but a player of his quality cannot be overlooked.

Whatever the reason for his omission at the weekend, if Depor are to avoid relegation then a player of Valeron’s quality will have a role to play in that battle, even if it is only fleeting moments.

Real Madrid 4 Real Sociedad 3

Forget the inclusion of Adan in goal again for Real Madrid. Forget about his red card and the arrival, to rapturous applause, of Iker Casillas after just six minutes. Forget about the two Ronaldo goals.

Instead focus on one thing. The inability of Real Sociedad to take advantage of a a Real Madrid side lacking cohesion, reduced to 10 men for around 84 minutes of the game and with a makeshift defence.

This was a game marked by conflict within La Real. Arrive at the Santiago Bernabeu with little in the way of expectation or hope and concede a sloppy goal in the opening moments of the game. Yet after just six minutes you are presented with a glorious chance to equalise and then to seize the initiative in the game.

Hang on though. You would have gladly taken a point before your arrival. Now with an extra man, you could pretend you are still paying 11 men and just hold on for a point? And therein lay the problem. La Real failed to take the opportunity. Their desire to avoid defeat significantly outweighed their ambition to win.

Madrid retreated into a low defensive block after conceding the first equaliser yet Sociedad failed to retain a high tempo to their own game. Initailly playing with greater verve, they allowed the game to drift by. The game often had the feel of a training game with Madrid content to defend deep and strike during quick tranisitions.

Despite falling behind for a second time, Prieto once more drew Sociedad level and at half time, the onus was on Montanier to guide his troops towards a massive victory. The Basques could not take that next step. The choice between a more concerted attacking strategy possibly negated by the threat of Madrid on transitions.

“For me, this was a unique opportunity to achieve something here, but we did not deserve to because we played a bad game defensively. We have made many technical mistakes, we lost a lot of possession. We gave too many chances for Madrid to counter-attack”

And so Madrid secured the three points.

Mallorca 1 Atletico Madrid 1

No Falcao equals no three points for Atletico. Or is that simplifying matters too much?

A weakened Atleti team managed to control the game and create and spurn a number of chances before Raul Garcia prodded the ball home for the opening goal midway through the second half. At that stage, a second Atleti goal seemed the most likely outcome yet Caparros men struck back with Kevin scoring the equaliser in the 87th minute.

“El Cholo” Simeone was considerable in his praise for the side however, one more referring to the physical qualities which he spoke of when he took the hot seat at the Calderon back in December 2012:-

“The game is not won by just the football played, but for the attitude, the intensity, the game situations, I have nothing to say about the team because they played a complete game”

The game also demonstrated that Atleti have the skillset to control a game with possession and still create chances. Considered a counter attacking team, Atleti enjoyed 56% possession with 15 attempts at goal.

Atleti maintain a five point leads over Madrid but there has been a stutter in their recent form with two wins, two defeats and a draw now in their last five league games.

For Caparros, the rot appears to have stopped. After a horrendous run of form which has seen the Islanders collect just six points from their last 13 league games, they now have a win and draw in their last two games.

Key issues remain to be resolved. With 131 chances created from their opening 17 league games, Mallorca need to improve their attack and quickly. Only Levante has created less but their defence is not as porous. Shut the back door and Mallorca should survive. Leave it open and it could be a long end to the season.

Malaga vs Valencia – Tactical Analysis

The two sides that finished 3rd and 4th in La Liga last season met at La Roselada on Saturday evening. A close, edgy game was anticipated. Malaga had no wins in their last four games and had failed to record a victory in a league game following a midweek Champions League fixture. Their opponents, Valencia, were undefeated in six games across all competitions although that masked their inability to win a league match away from home since last March.

A tense game should have been the outcome. Two teams buoyed by qualification for the knockout stages of the Champions League and contesting the final Champions League qualification spot. It may seem strange to state such a view so early in the season but given that Barcelona and Real Madrid will take the first two spots and Atleti appear to be on the way to 3rd, it leaves a clutch of teams contesting 4th place and the final spot.

Instead what we witnessed was a one-sided contest. Malaga started brightly, took an early lead and only poor finishing stopped this contest been over much earlier than it should have been.

Line Ups

Malaga Starting Line Up

Pellegrini named the same starting eleven that had faced Osasuna last weekend, drawing in the process. Qualification to the knockout stages of the Champions League enabled the Chilean to rotate his squad for the away game against Zenit enabling key players to get some much needed rest.

Valencia Starting Line Up

Pellegrino made a number of changes to the Valencia side following last week’s home win over Espanyol. Some were enforced whilst others were made for tactical or technical reasons.

Soldado was suspended and replaced by Valdez. Barragan continued to deputise for the injured Joao Perreira at right back. Ricardo Costa was recalled to central defence in place of Victor Ruiz whilst Guardado was pushed forward to left midfield and Cissokho came in at left back with Jonathan Veira dropping out. Veteran midfielder Albelda was replaced by Gago.

The final and most significant tactical change was the replacement of Jonas as the support striker by Banega.

Systems

Manuel Pellegrini favours his teams to be compact and dominate possession with short passing triangles always providing options to the player in possession. This Malaga side are not yet as fluent as his great Villarreal team but there are some key similarities.

Malaga set out as a 4-4-2 with both wide players comfortable cutting infield and the full backs overlapping to provide width. Indeed, Eliseu and Gamez both provided an assist in this game. The use of Joaquin as a central striker was very interesting. Although a right winger for much of his career, the ability of Joaquin to pull wide from a central starting position enables the “wingers” Isco and Portillo to drive diagonally inward to the space being vacated. It’s a system that Pellegrini used to great effect at Villarreal with Rossi and Nilmar providing mobility and width in the striking positions.

If Pellegrini and Malaga have a clear identity, Pellegrino and Valencia are still searching for their identity to a certain extent.

The key tactical move for Pellegrino was the replacement of Jonas with Banega. This was a clear attempt to gain more possession of the ball and retain it. It was a move that, whilst looking correct in theory, failed to pay off in practice. Valencia were not dominating possession, not controlling space and not counter attacking. It was a listless performance.

Despite the inability to demonstrate any clear personality during the game, Valencia recorded a high pass completion rate with 304 successful passes from 392 attempted. As ever with stats though, the context is important. Too often the passes were horizontal and in safe areas of the pitch. Malaga may have had a marginally lower pass completion rate of 75% with 315 successful passes from 422 attempted but often these were penetrative passes being attempted. Malaga were brave in their attacking play.

The contrasting fortunes of Banega and Isco, key attacking players for either side, are shown in the graphics below which detail the passes attempted by both players:-

Isco Passes vs Valencia                                          http://www.squawka.com

Banega Passes vs Malaga                                              http://www.squawka.com

The number of successful passes in this issue is not as important as the location of the passes and direction. Isco starts on the left side of midfield but the location of passes demonstrates his movement across the pitch with the vast majority of passes being in the opponents half of the field and moving forward.

This contrasts sharply with Banega. Designed as the central point in the attacking trident behind Valdez, Banega constantly dropped deep searching for the ball, in the process isolating Valdez. Too few of his passes were vertical identifying the inability of Valencia getting players forward in support of the attack, with Guardado and Feghouli very quiet, and the inability to search out Valdez accurately.

One of Valdez’s key attributes is his aerial ability yet Valencia only attempted eight crosses in the entire game and only three of these were successful.

A criticism of Valencia in the past has been that the team are two disconnected units, the defence and the attack with Banega being the key to link these elements. At La Rosaleda, there did not seem to be any attack to speak of. Valencia had only one of their five attempts at goal on target.

Banega was supposed to help Valencia retain possession and hurt Malaga yet whilst he achieved the former he badly failed with the latter. Which this may sound harsh on the midfielder, his performance was not aided by the general poor play of Valencia with sloppy passing and positional errors compounded this. Perhaps to much weight was placed on the shoulders of the player?

The Opening Goal

Malaga started the game very brightly and immediately pushed Valencia back into their own half.

The opening goal arrived in the 7th minute when Barragan failed to clear a deep cross into the penalty area. Eliseu collected the loose ball on the left wing and passed to Portillo who was standing in space at the edge of the penalty area with time to curl the ball into the net.

Portillo had drifted into this position from the right yet nobody had picked him up. Tino Costa had dropped between the centre backs at this stage. Why he had moved so deep was odd given that Malaga had few players in the penalty area.

The lethargy which was engulfing Valencia continued. Following kick off, Portillo won the ball back almost immediately. There was no response from Valencia to going a goal behind.

Wasteful Malaga

One of Malaga’s biggest problems last night was the inability score the second goal and provide a degree of breathing space. Although Saviola scored the crucial second goal in the 74th minute, he had chances much earlier which he failed to convert.

Saviola Shots vs Valencia                                              http://www.squawka.com

Malaga were finding too much space between the Valencia lines but were unable to take any of the opportunities that arrived. Malaga had 22 attempts at goal but only six hit the target.

Is Saviola the right man to lead the Malaga attack? He is mobile and can move laterally so is a good fit for the system but his goals return is poor. El Conejo has never been the most prolific of strikers but he is Malaga’s top goalscorer with four league goal from his ten appearances.

If this season is going to be successful for Malaga, they need to continue to share the goalscoring burden across the entire front line whilst also hoping that the likes of Eliseu can also continue to weigh in with a goal or two.

Two late goals followed and provided a scoreline which was more reflective of the game. Santa Cruz poked the ball home from close range following Jesus Gamez’ deflected shot. Again, Santa Cruz was in space and unmarked.

The fourth and final goal was a 20 yard strike from Isco into the bottom corner. Gathering possession some 25 yards out, Isco had time and space, a constant and concerning theme from the Valencia perspective, to move forward, compose himself and shoot.

Valencia Defensive Issues

A former Valencia defender, Pellegrino will need to examine the shape of his defence positionally. This was from an early stage with Barragan continually moving too close to his central defenders and allowing Malaga freedom on the left.

This manifested itself in the 18th minute when the entire defence shuffled over and nobody was near Eliseu when Malaga switched play. The full back managed to have a shot at goal. Shortly afterwards, Barragan was caught upfield and Isco was able to counter in the available space.

Whilst Malaga were pressing their opponent intelligently when the opportunity arose to win the ball back and dropping off when Valencia had more controlled possession, the visitors seemed to lose all shape at times. Their pressing was erratic and too many players became involved leaving space and gaps elsewhere. The short passing movements from Malaga were neatly aligned with longer passing when appropriate. It enabled them to open up space.

Only the wasteful finishing from Malaga, highlighted above, prevented the visitors from conceding further before the interval.

Valencia made 31 successful tackles form an attempted 37. Fernando Gago had 100% success rate with his 10 tackles. The Argentinean made a significant contribution to his side defensively and in various positions but too few of his team mates matched his efforts either in determination and workrate or quality.

Gago Tackles vs Malaga                                                   http://www.squawka.com

That he made so many tackles all over the pitch highlights his workrate but he should not have been required to make so many tackles in all over the pitch. What were his team mates doing?

Conclusions

An emphatic victory for Malaga and a crucial one at that. With Atleti, Barcelona and Real Madrid seemingly securing the top three positions, the race for fourth involves a number of teams. Malaga have given themselves a four point lead over one of their main rivals and returned to winning ways after a relatively lean spell in the process.

Having gone six games undefeated in all competitions, the nature of the loss to Malaga will arguably concern Pellgrino more than the actual defeat itself. Valencia were extremely poor and offered no resistance to their opponents. The poor away form must be addressed. The Mestalla is becoming a fortress once more for Los Che and with La Real up next, a team with an almost equally poor away record, Valencia have the ideal opportunity to bounce back.

All graphics and statistics taken from www.squawka.com

Finest Hour?

Eliseu celebrates after scoring the opening goal vs Milan

Pellegrini guides the Andalusian’s into the last 16 of the Champions League